How GOP Leaders Use Campaign Cash to Head Off Troublemakers

Leadership super PACs are working against Republican candidates who buck the party line.

The Senate Leadership Fund is boosting Senator Luther Strange, R-Ala., who replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 1, 2017, 8 p.m.

Su­per PACs aligned with GOP lead­er­ship on both sides of the Cap­it­ol are crack­ing the whip on mem­bers who threaten the party’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda.

Earli­er this spring, House Speak­er Paul Ry­an’s Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund made an ex­ample of Rep. Dav­id Young by pulling its reelec­tion sup­port after the second-term con­gress­man came out against lead­ers’ plan to re­peal and re­place Obama­care.

Now, as the Sen­ate wades through its own health care ne­go­ti­ations, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund is spend­ing mil­lions to keep an­oth­er House health-care-plan dis­sent­er out of the up­per cham­ber in the race to re­place former Sen. Jeff Ses­sions in Alabama.

Both moves un­der­score the drag that in­tra­party dis­sent has had on the GOP’s le­gis­lat­ive agenda in the first months of a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Wash­ing­ton. Des­pite ma­jor­it­ies in both cham­bers, lead­ers have struggled to make mean­ing­ful pro­gress on big-tick­et items such as health care and tax re­form, largely due to dis­agree­ments among their own mem­bers.

Un­like the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee and Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, the su­per PACs have the abil­ity to ac­cept un­lim­ited con­tri­bu­tions. In re­cent years, lead­ers have pushed donors who care about the ma­jor­ity to give there in­stead of oth­er GOP groups.

Also un­like the party com­mit­tees, lead­ers’ su­per PACs are not fun­ded by mem­ber dues, and don’t have to treat all in­cum­bents equally. While both CLF and SLF have af­fil­i­ated policy arms that spend dir­ectly on is­sue ad­vocacy, their abil­ity to be se­lect­ive in who they help elect­or­ally is an­oth­er way that lead­ers can pres­sure mem­bers to sup­port their agenda—and weed po­ten­tial trouble­makers out of their caucus.

In Alabama, the Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund has already pledged up to $10 mil­lion to help ap­poin­ted-Sen. Luth­er Strange through a crowded spe­cial-elec­tion primary that in­cludes a hand­ful of con­ser­vat­ive firebrands who could butt heads with lead­er­ship if elec­ted. Though SLF has en­gaged in open primar­ies be­fore—most not­ably for Sen. Todd Young over House Free­dom Caucus Mem­ber Marlin Stutz­man in In­di­ana last cycle—its lead­ers pre­vi­ously said they would only do so if the seat was at risk in the gen­er­al elec­tion. In back­ing Strange, who will have only been an in­cum­bent for four months by the Au­gust primary, SLF is tak­ing on a race that even Demo­crats con­cede they have no shot at, re­gard­less of the nom­in­ee.

SLF spokes­man Chris Pack said the group counts the new sen­at­or as any oth­er in­cum­bent, adding that SLF is “gen­er­ally sup­port­ive” of de­fend­ing in­cum­bents from primary chal­lenges.

“Sen­at­or Strange is a strong sup­port­er of the pri­or­it­ies of Sen­ate lead­er­ship and the White House—and that is why we are sup­port­ing him,” said Pack.

They’re also ag­gress­ively at­tack­ing his GOP op­pon­ents, most of who would not qual­i­fy as al­lies of lead­er­ship. Rep. Mo Brooks is a mem­ber of the House Free­dom Caucus, and was a vo­cal op­pon­ent of Ry­an’s first health care pro­pos­al. An­oth­er ser­i­ous con­tender, far-right state Su­preme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, has railed against GOP lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton, and de­clined to say wheth­er he would sup­port Mc­Con­nell if elec­ted.

“Ba­sic­ally Strange is the one who’s best able to work with Mitch Mc­Con­nell and ac­tu­ally get s—- done, as op­posed to be­ing the party of ‘no,’” said one GOP strategist with know­ledge of the race.

While lead­ers pick­ing fa­vor­ites in primar­ies is noth­ing new for either party, spend­ing big to tip the scales in a safe seat is un­usu­al. NR­SC de­fends in­cum­bents—in­clud­ing ones who oc­ca­sion­ally feud with lead­er­ship—against primary threats, but has a policy of not mak­ing form­al en­dorse­ments in open races.

The Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee en­dorsed in primar­ies last cycle and spent mil­lions for Katie Mc­Ginty in Pennsylvania, but did so on the premise that her op­pon­ent would hurt their chances at pick­ing up the seat. And while former Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Harry Re­id per­son­ally en­dorsed Sen. Chris Van Hol­len over then-Rep. Donna Ed­wards for a safe seat in Mary­land, his su­per PAC, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC, didn’t spend any money to help Van Hol­len.

“Demo­crats go out of their way not to do this,” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist with ties to Re­id. “Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC just doesn’t have the money that Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund does, so they can’t piss it away” on can­did­ates who will vote the same when they get there.

Re­pub­lic­ans, for their part, may have more reas­on to be wary of dis­sent­ers. On the House side, Ry­an’s first health care pro­pos­al was side­tracked by the same or­gan­ized group of con­ser­vat­ives that ous­ted former Speak­er John Boehner just two years ago.

Since then, lead­ers have con­sol­id­ated much of the House fun­drais­ing to Ry­an-aligned out­side groups, where they can dole it out to help mem­bers who sup­port lead­er­ship, and cut off those who don’t. The Ry­an-aligned Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund, which plans to spend $100 mil­lion on com­pet­it­ive House races, already can­celled plans to open cam­paign of­fices for Young the day he an­nounced his op­pos­i­tion to Ry­an’s health care plan.

CLF ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Corry Bliss said at the time the group would be “ter­min­at­ing [their] lease” be­cause the con­gress­man “de­cided not to sup­port Pres­id­ent Trump and House lead­er­ship.” Bliss ad­ded that the group wished Young “the best of luck,” but had “no plans to spend any money for [him] this cycle.”

While Re­pub­lic­ans con­cede it’s un­likely that CLF will aban­don oth­er mem­bers after set­ting up shop in their dis­trict, the de­cision to cut off Young was a clear warn­ing to Re­pub­lic­ans who buck lead­er­ship.

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